Friday, November 03, 2006

Strong Language

Having hewn his way to the dark heart of the Internets, Colin Rule has issued a traveler’s advisory: Here be strong language.

His conclusion:

We're going to have a long row to hoe to restore any semblance of civil political dialogue in this country any time soon.
The word “restore” is as odd in this context as “semblance” is revealing.

In 1956 – a golden year for decorum and propriety, or so I’m told - Senator James O. Eastland publicly announced his distaste for “black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers.” That’s fairly strong language right there, and while a few shrinking violets may be gratified that Eastland was too much of a gentleman to say “unbearably stinking fucking niggers,” it’d be pretty hard to make the claim that our political dialogue has become less civil than it was in Eastland’s day. By the same token, it’d be hard to argue that Eastland’s views would’ve been more palatable if he’d expressed them in politely coded language (as his protégés do today).

I usually leave the civility beat to Thers, partially because the man’s a drunken brute who guards his turf as jealously as a piss-spraying pit bull, and partially because the official and quasi-official control of language is his area of expertise. This time around, I’ll venture a few disorganized thoughts of my own (with the understanding that I'm not attacking Colin Rule, but using his warning about "strong language" as a jumping-off point).

A few years back I read that when voice recorders are retrieved from crashed planes, it very often happens that the pilot’s last words before impact are excised from the official transcript, because they’re along the lines of “Oh, fuck!” That phrase can’t do justice to a pilot’s feelings at that moment, any more than “I love you” could in a happier circumstance; there are things we simply can’t do with words, no matter how “strong” our language may be.

In his book Wartime, Paul Fussell devotes a chapter to the frequency, duration and intensity of military swearing. It’s pretty amusing, until you read the chapter entitled “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books," which describes how often soldiers in WWII were injured or killed when a friend's severed hand - or head, or penis - struck them at a high velocity.

Donald Rumsfeld might respond to a blow from a severed penis with “goodness gracious” (if he were on camera, at least), but I think most people would say something a bit more colorful. Still, even if they were to scream the most elaborate obscenities at the top of their lungs for days, the elemental horror of the experience – the real obscenity, that is – would remain unexpressed and inexpressible.

Which reminds me: I recently saw a picture of an Iraqi father cradling a dead child whose torso ended in a sopping confusion of shattered bone, flayed fat and dangling veins. I don’t know what it’s like to be him. I don’t want to know. For that matter – and this is the essential point – I don’t even want to know what it’s like to be me, and see this obscenity committed in my name. Even though my grasp of this man’s misery is infinitesimal, it feels like more than I can stand. I’d gladly forget all about it, except that I’d have to kill part of myself to do it.

In one of her essays, Marilynne Robinson mentions a new disease discovered by American doctors among slave women whose children had been taken from them and sold. It was apparently a sort of despondent, tearful malaise…exactly the sort of reaction you’d expect from a mother whose children had been taken from her and sold, in other words. But this obvious interpretation was impossible – for some people, at least – because it would’ve shifted the diagnosis of sickness from the grieving mother to the “dispassionate” observer of her grief.

It seems like the guardians of “civil discourse” are wondering in much the same way what strange new disease has infected their fellow citizens. It couldn’t possibly be that our horror and outrage is actually appropriate to our situation (or more appropriate than their reaction, at any rate). Our incivility must be due to a mysterious increase in partisanship, exacerbated by online anonymity. Whatever the cause, though, it's preventing us from soberly debating the really important questions (like whether invading Iraq was a bold, decisive move for which Bush deserves our admiration, or an honest mistake, based on the best possible motives, for which he deserves our respect).

I hasten to add that I’m talking about sincere civility police. I’m not talking about the sniggering bullies who laboriously goad people into defending themselves against insane slurs and then accuse them of having anger-management problems.

Nor the prissy sociopaths who pretend that polite language is more important than the urgency and accuracy of one's message (even though they’d elbow aside a dozen pregnant women if someone yelled “man the fucking lifeboats…the motherfucking ship is sinking!”).

Nor the appalling, dead-hearted cultists who claim that respect for the office of the president should protect a vicious halfwit like George W. Bush from “incivility,” while generations of competent and intelligent politicians remain fair game for the lurid abuse of every cryptofascist lickspittle from here to the Dry Tortugas.

Nor am I talking about a supreme asshole like Tacitus, who practices all these dark arts at once, and whose only saving grace is that his prose – which reads like Ayn Rand channeling Robert E. Howard while wasted on Romilar – is so soporific that most of his targets will nod off over some orphaned clause long before they manage to tease out the details of their trumped-up infractions against "civilized" discourse.

No, I’m just talking about the kind of people who, thanks to fear or self-interest, can’t accept that Bush's actions are heartbreaking, immoral and dangerous beyond all reckoning, and that the only really serious problem with "strong language" is that it isn't strong enough to bear witness to the full horror of the crimes that are being committed in our name.

It's no wonder our country needs civility so desperately. Without it, we might have to change.


Xan said...

Damn fine essay there, goddammit. Excellent fucking piece in fact. Should you ever wish to revisit the subject and seek other examples of military swearing, may I recommend the excellent The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War by Dr. Thomas Lowry. As people of the period rarely wrote down examples of cursing either by themselves or others, most of his chapter "Blue With Oaths" comes from court martial records, a relatively untapped resource in the National Archives.

I mention this in part because you give hints of being a Civil War geek--I don't think I've ever seen anybody not in that category refer to the "Dry Tortugas", site of the Union prison camp for Union soldiers either for civil crimes (rape, murder off the battlefield etc) or offenses for which they would otherwise be shot like desertion. Lincoln was famous for countermanding courts martial sentences of death for this, particularly if the offender was young. Generals bitched that this was bad for discipline, which now that I think about it is even on topic as demonstrating severe incivility. :)

Phila said...

I mention this in part because you give hints of being a Civil War geek

Not so much, actually. I've read about it, sure, but not in any kind of obsessive or exhaustive way. Diaries, mostly.

The Lowry book sounds fascinating, though. I'll have to add it to the list...thanks for the tip!

Nanette said...

In the run-up to the 2004 elections there was this photo of what I am sure would be considered a very civil woman - big, horsey teeth and gums beared in a wide grin, jowls and wattles quivering with pleasure as she silently mocked those wounded in war by sporting a little purple heart bandaid on her cheek.

I'm no fan of Kerry (or war and warriors) but that just disgusted me.

A semblance of civil discourse... yep. It's amazing the horrors one can hide under that, or at least attempt to - usually it works but sometimes it's quite obvious to all but the most determinedly blind that what people are essentially doing is taking a putrid, maggot infested garbage pile and spraying it with Febreeze.

Of course, it doesn't actually matter how you say things when what you are saying is uncomfortable for the hearers. Or deflates their world view, or whatever.

In one way or another I've been around quite a few right wingers over the years... mostly in news or political IRC chatrooms for a time. They were bad during the Clinton years, worse when Bush was installed and absolutely vile after 9/11 and what caused them to really freak out was to be confronted with logic, or facts or knowledge of any sort that didn't come from approved sources (which did not, by the way, include the news media... news, I was informed, was to be only somehow gotten through "common sense"). Common sense being the code words for rant radio, I think.

I am neither uncivil, nor do I normally use "strong language", but by the end of our association (and it did end, even way before the support for torture and so on), they hated me most of all.

Anyway, I know nothing of Colin Rule, but this sort of thing reminds me of The Corner - where they can blithely encourage genocide, wonder whether Muslims are shouldn't just be considered vermin, approvingly quote and link to people like Steve Sailer, decide that women really should be second class citizens, then give a "strong language" or "get the kids out of the room" warning when linking to a site that actually may be saying the same exact things, only with some profanity.

I don't believe in the "good, but misguided" Bush/ Republican voter. That's easy for me, no doubt, because - unlike many people I know - I have no Republican relatives. That I know of. There really are no words strong enough to express the horror and frustration at what is going on now, the people being killed in our names, the general insanity of this administration. My worry is that the same policies will continue, only in a more gentle fashion, if and when the Dems takeover, though. I hope we hold on to strong language and make good use of it then, too.

"Civility" and "incivility" often work in tandem to accomplish goals... sort of good cop/bad cop thing. At least that's often how it's traditionally worked in marginalized communities in dealing with the majority. Without the bad cop, the good cop doesn't get a hearing.

And for a digression, in thinking about this, in our society "obscenity" covers things like breasts with pasties on them (I imagine that full nipple breasts are the End of Civilization)... it doesn't seem to cover blown up kids, poverty and so on, but anyway...

In countries like the Netherlands or Sweden, where attitudes towards nudity and sex and so on are reportedly a lot less pathological, or in societies where the wearing of clothes at all appears to be optional (National Geographic type, etc)... I wonder what they consider obscene?

Phila said...

In the run-up to the 2004 elections there was this photo of what I am sure would be considered a very civil woman

Yeah, she's burned into my brain, 'cause Atrios posted her picture a couple time. She really is the face of this ugly era for me.

I wonder what they consider obscene?

Our healthcare system and our politics generally, I'm thinking.